Tucson and Beyond

By: Tim Vanderpool

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October 9, 2014

Savor the freedom of Southern Arizona.

About the author

Tim Vanderpool

Tim Vanderpool

Tim Vanderpool is a Tucson-based freelance writer whose hankering for adventure and trusty VW van have taken him to the far corners of our great state. His travel writing has appeared in publications ranging from Sunset and The Christian Science Monitor to National Geographic Traveler.

Former President Bill Clinton once visited Mi Nidito, a bustling Mexican eatery in South Tucson. Known for his robust appetite, Mr. Clinton preceded to order nearly everything on the menu, from succulent chile rellenos to spicy chicken enchiladas. Years later, his eclectic choices remain enshrined in a whopping dish called the President’s Plate. 

“You should try it,” the cheerful waitress tells me. “There’s a little bit of everything in there.”

As I consider my own appetite, I’m also pondering this perfect metaphor for Tucson and Southern Arizona: Filled with variety, spice and color, a free-spirited place where classic luxury lingers amid a liberating desert landscape. Here you’ll find relaxing resorts and hushed natural hideaways, zesty Mexican dishes on the famous Salsa Trail, and rustic, ranch-style cookouts at a charming dude ranch. Air Canada rouge connects you to this vibrant region, and Visit Tucson helps you explore it. 

Discover your own appetite for exploration, culinary or otherwise. Here are a few ideas to get you started.

Sample

Find exquisite boutique-browsing at fountain-dotted St. Philips Plaza in central Tucson; don’t miss the stunning Native American jewelry at Bahti Indian Arts. Venture into the Catalina Foothills at La Encantada Plaza, where you might enjoy fine dining at the Armitage Wine Lounge and Cafe—don’t miss the antipasto board. 

Indulge 

Find the ultimate marriage of nature and luxury at Loews Ventana Canyon. Stretching across nearly 100 acres, with the Santa Catalina mountains as a backdrop, this desert oasis resort has long set the standard for Tucson luxury. 
 
Pamper yourself at the Hilton Tucson El Conquistador Golf & Tennis Resort where you can enjoy three nearby championship golf courses and soak up the southwestern sun. Play in nearby Oro Valley where there’s world-class cycling, swimming, spas, golf and hiking trails that showcase spectacular mountain views. Take advantage of the nearby beautiful Catalina State Park that features campgrounds, hiking and an equestrian center. For cycling enthusiasts, experience fun and adventure with the 32nd Annual El Tour de Tucson ride that attracts over 9,000 cyclists from throughout the United States and worldwide. During your getaway try locally grown produce at the Oro Valley Farmers Market every Saturday. 
 
Yearn to blend horseback riding into your Tucson adventure? You’ll find Western-style elegance at the Tanque Verde Ranch; with roots reaching back more than a century, this venerable retreat offers trail rides, nature programs and cowboy cookouts among the towering saguaros. 
 
Discover Old World opulence at the Arizona Inn, a circa-1930s oasis in the heart of Tucson. Or, indulge body and soul at Miraval Arizona, a wellness luxury spa that soothes with yoga, meditation and daily hikes into the Sonoran Desert. 
 

Sip

A singular cow peers over the fence as a knot of wine connoisseurs gaze at the oak-dotted hills and luxuriously swirl their Zinfandels on the porch of Callaghan Vineyards. Welcome to wine country, Arizona style. Only an hour drive southeast of Tucson, this land of corrals, sweeping valleys and emerald vineyards is Southern Arizona’s answer to Napa Valley, with the action centered in the tiny towns of Sonoita, Elgin and Willcox. Here, top wineries such as Callaghan, the Pillsbury Wine Company and the Zarpara Vineyard are making an international mark.
 

Savor

Travel the Salsa Trail, a spicy path meandering among top Mexican eateries in and around the small town of Safford. You’ll find mom-and-pop outposts such El Coronado restaurant serving succulent beef picado, and El Charro Restaurant with its rustic green-chili-beef “masa bowl.”
 

Experience

Start your adventure south of Tucson at Mission San Xavier del Bac. Nicknamed “White Dove of the Desert,” this 18th century mission ranks among the finest surviving Spanish colonial structures in the United States. Find more authentic beauty further south at the Tumacácori National Historical Park; the well-preserved ruins of the chapel tower over a grassy field and weathered crosses. 
 
Another short drive brings you to the postcard-perfect ranching community of Patagonia. Nestled in an oak-dappled valley beneath the Canelo Hills, it offers pristine hometown charm, complete with families picnicking at the grassy city park. Don’t miss the Global Arts Gallery’s handcrafted jewelry, “mariachi” cream cheese calzones in the Velvet Elvis restaurant, and the Patagonia-Sonoita Creek wildlife preserve on the outskirts of town.
 
Next stop: Tombstone, where even the ghosts seem ornery. Many folks at this feisty outpost say the dust never settled from the 1881 O.K. Corral shoot-out, now considered the granddaddy of Old West legends. Stand alongside a life-sized Wyatt Earp at the O.K. Corral, and you sense a yellow-bellied sniper haunting the shadows. Saunter down a weathered boardwalk and you’re trailed by faintly jingling spurs. Glance up a narrow alley, only to glimpse an outlaw’s tattered long-coat slipping through a doorway.
 
Further east, you’ll come to Bisbee, a boutique town woven into the Mule Mountains. This formerly rich and raucous mining burg enjoys a booming second-life as a village of artisans, boutiques and craft shops. Among my favorite stops: Óptimo Custom Hatworks, which hand-crafts stylish toppers, ranging from palmetto-weave Panamas to fur-felt fedoras.
 
Finish your journey at Kartchner Caverns State Park, a vast, underground world where visitors are treated to exquisite formations cast against a perfectly calibrated light show. 
 
Emerging into the sun, you’ll blink once or twice, and then hit the trail back to Tucson, having absorbed several days—and many centuries—in beautifully timeless Southern Arizona. Maybe you’ll even be ready for the President’s Plate. 
 
Book your Southern Arizona trip this fall with flights from Air Canada rouge
 

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